A curious meeting of minds wrapped up yesterday. The less gracious might call it a ‘shower of c*nts’. I refer, of course, to the National Conservatism Conference, which touched down in central London to welcome everyone from ‘neoconservative’ (read: avowed racist who thinks ‘diversity’ nearly crashed the US economy) Douglas Murray to the UK home secretary Suella Braverman.
From the jump, the rhetoric seeping out of the conference was unabashed. On Tuesday, Braverman – a privately educated barrister – delivered a speech decrying “elites” and “political correctness”, taking specific aim at trans women and immigrants. Speaking at the NatCon evening gala, Murray dismissed comparisons between national conservatism and the Nazis, asking why other countries had to decry nationalism just because Germany “mucked up twice”. He concluded his speech with a call for “majority rights” to take precedence once more. Subtle, it was not.
Elsewhere, far-right conspiracy theories, pleas to protect the “normative [heterosexual, cis] family” and antisemitic attack lines found an airing. The Guardian asked, in a piece clearly run through the legal department and back again, why “terms linked to antisemitism” were on such naked display. The answer seems too obvious to bother outlining.
Some have argued that NatCon is a marginal fringe festival of little note. This seems overly optimistic. National conservatism, as this crop of adherents defines it, has seen its profile and influence rise in the last few years. As journalist Sam Bright points out, in 2020, a backbench Tory MP was publicly reprimanded by the party for attending the Rome chapter of NatCon alongside far-right figures. This year, Tory MPs, ministers and big hitters were the star attractions – attending both in their capacities as government officials and with the full backing of the prime minister.
The fingerprints of those with a vested interest in national conservatism are all over recent government policy announcements, whether it’s the crusade against sex and relationship education spearheaded by Miriam Cates MP (who blamed falling birthrates on “cultural Marxism” in her NatCon speech), or increasingly draconian border controls that are so wacky – a floating prison, anyone? – they would be laughable if real people weren’t suffering as a result.
Even NatCon speakers who positioned themselves as more ‘moderate’ faces, such as housing and levelling up secretary Michael Gove, gave legitimacy to national conservatism’s newfound place within the mainstream right simply by making an appearance. The creep of such ideologies into accepted Tory thought, he said, was a sign of a “healthy” movement. “One of the arguments that’s sometimes made is that after 13 years in power, the time has come to dispense with the Conservatives because there’s a lack of ideas, there’s a lack of intellectual energy, there’s a sense of exhaustion,” he told delegates. “I completely disagree. I think what we’ve seen at different points is the Conservative party, as it always has, adapting to changed circumstances.”
Such ‘adaptation’ envisages a world full of divided nation-states, where religion – specifically Christianity (the mere mention of ‘Islam’ in such quarters causes heads to explode) has a leading role in state governance; cultural and political favour is lavished on ‘traditional’ family setups, and school children all trill ‘God Save The King’ before the day’s lessons begin. That Gove – a canny operator who has served in cabinets under five successive prime ministers since being appointed education secretary in 2010 – sees national conservatism as one way the wind is blowing is concerning to say the least.
Then there’s the wider context. The Tories will likely find themselves shunted into opposition at the next election. A new leader will be chosen, as will a fresh ideological position from which to batter the new government. While the culture wars that have such appeal for certain Tory factions don’t yet curry the same enthusiasm with the wider public, this doesn’t seem to matter to those beating national conservatism’s drum, who are convinced they know exactly what ‘red wall’ voters want. This is despite bearing a suspiciously close resemblance to the ‘elites’ they have so much ire for; an OpenDemocracy reporter who evaded NatCon’s press ban found delegates overwhelmingly skewed young, male and white, and were hailed from the most prestigious – and expensive – educational institutions in the western world.
It’s undeniable that this vein of conservatism, and those sympathetic to it, currently has momentum. The Edmund Burke Foundation – the organisation (and money) behind NatCon – has only gained traction and mainstream legitimacy since it was founded in 2019. And while the far-right messages that national conservatism parrots may be worryingly familiar, this particular articulation of them is ‘new’. Gove may be wrong in characterising the engine powering national conservatism as ‘intellectual’, but there is energy here; an advantage when it comes to the struggle over what politics dominates the parliamentary Tory party.
The expulsion of Tory ‘moderates’ from the party’s inner circle began under Boris Johnson, of course – but its fruits are only ripening now. While some of the new injection of 2019 hard right MPs may find themselves out in the cold after the next election, at the moment they’re dominating conversation, even from the so-called ‘fringes’. To be loud and wrong is a powerful combination in British politics, as it is in the media framework which props up the whole sorry apparatus.
I hope I’m wrong; I hope national conservatism dissipates with little but a whimper. But its foetid populism, divide-and-prosper messaging and promises of returning to a mythical, ‘traditional’ bygone Britain may gain ground when other parties offer little more than soft conservatism as an answer to the ills plaguing the nation. There’s a gulf begging to be filled by bright ideas and bold new policy. But as we’ve seen across the West in recent years, if that isn’t forthcoming, the far right is always waiting in the wings.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.